Opinion: 3 things frontline health workers need to battle COVID-19

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Health workers participate in a simulation to treat a large number of COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by: REUTERS / Baz Ratner

We are entering week four of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also happens to coincide with World Health Worker Week. Never has there been a more appropriate time to focus on health workers. Rarely have they faced such danger on such a massive scale. We have an obligation to keep frontline health workers everywhere safe, including making sure all have the personal protective equipment, or PPE, they need.

NGOs should be offering solutions that build on existing tools and systems to avoid overtaxing national COVID-response teams.

All over the world, we’re seeing reports of health workers who are overworked, underequipped, scared. Some are afraid to go home because they might infect their families. Some are even walking off the job because they don’t have the PPE they need to work safely.

They deserve on-the-job safety every day, but particularly during a pandemic. We’re expecting them to care for coronavirus patients while also keeping up with all their other everyday demands, including HIV care, family planning services, vaccinations, and so much more.

Here are three things frontline health workers need right now that we must move fast to address:

1. On-the-job protection

This includes PPE, equipment, and up-to-date information and skills on COVID-19. We can:

Use health workforce data to distribute PPE and personnel equitably

Many countries around the world are dealing with equipment shortages right now, but all frontline health workers deserve to be protected on the job. We can work with our local partners to determine what data are available — for example, in a country’s iHRIS, DHIS-2, or other databases — to inform their decisions on where to deploy health workers and how to equitably distribute the supplies they need, including PPE.

We can use the World Health Organization’s guidance on PPE to help partners calculate how much PPE their health workforces need, and then to gather the expertise to procure it locally or regionally — not from the U.S. We can also guide and train local health supply chain managers. This is a specialist skill set, figuring out where supplies are available, judging their quality, and determining how quickly they can be gotten and where they are most needed. We can help mobilize this expertise and work with local authorities to make the most of the supplies they do have.

Use appropriate, available digital health tools to connect health workers to information

This is not a time for classroom learning in big groups or for reinventing wheels. We can work with our local partners in low- and middle-income countries to activate systems and technology that are already in place to connect health workers with real-time updates and education.

Liberia, for example, is now using mHero — a two-way communication platform that was developed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak — to send COVID-19 messages to health workers. mHero works by linking existing health information systems, so it can be put into place quickly.

Our solutions don’t have to be shiny and new — they just have to work.

Spread the word about what works

NGOs can help document and share best practices and adapt policies to scale up burgeoning successes in the COVID-19 response from around the world. Check out the Frontline Health Worker Coalition’s policy recommendations for examples.

 

2. Relief from burnout

NGOs can work with national response teams to maximize health workers’ impact on the pandemic while also protecting their physical and mental health. We can:

Use data and planning to surge health worker deployment

Whether it’s using the WHO’s Workforce Indicators for Staffing Needs tool or drawing on data from national professional councils, NGOs can help governments aggregate and use data to strategically deploy more health workers during emergencies. The result is fewer unmanageably long shifts for health workers, less understaffing at health facilities, and better health services for everyone.

Organize free child care and temporary housing

This will help more health workers — particularly women, who make up the bulk of the health workforce and who tend to have more caretaking responsibilities at home — keep their families safe from infection and lower stress on the job.

Ensure health care for health workers

The Frontline Health Workers Coalition is advocating for frontline health workers to be a priority when it comes to rolling out rapid diagnostic tests — I couldn’t agree more. Health workers should be routinely tested for COVID-19 at no personal cost, and offered counseling when they need it for depression, burnout, and substance abuse. Their own health-related expenses should be fully covered throughout the course of this pandemic. We can advocate to local decision-makers to make all this happen.

3. Immediate solutions with long-term impact

Right now, NGOs should be offering solutions that build on existing tools and systems to avoid overtaxing national COVID-response teams with untested ideas and advocating for policies that strengthen national health systems overall. NGOs can:

Listen to and elevate the voices of frontline health workers on exactly what they need

Any and all solutions we offer should be developed with input from health workers. They know their needs, their communities, and what works in their contexts. We need to hear their stories and give them a global platform to share their experiences and expertise.

Tap existing networks

In francophone West Africa, religious leaders and youth ambassadors are taking to social media with crucial messages about COVID-19 and family planning. Look for opportunities to partner with networks like these — it doesn’t take any additional funding, and you can do it right away. Those same networks will be powerful allies when it comes to holding governments accountable on any COVID-related commitments they make down the road.

And finally, protect your staff

NGOs can’t help if we’re hobbled by sickness. When I took the helm as the new president and CEO at IntraHealth International in mid-March, COVID-19 had just been declared a pandemic. Since then, we’ve shifted most staff worldwide to telework and are monitoring the needs in each country where we work. It hasn’t been easy — we’ve had the same tech challenges as everyone else. But it’s keeping us safer as we work hard to do all the things I’ve mentioned here.

So stay safe. Take care of each other. We have a long road ahead.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Polly Dunford

    Polly Dunford is president and CEO of IntraHealth International. She has almost 20 years of experience with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cambodia, Haiti, Jordan, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Washington, D.C., most recently serving as the global director for HIV/AIDS. In this role, she led the agency’s efforts to help countries achieve and sustain epidemic control of HIV/AIDS under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.